One of the reasons why the Premier League has been so evenly matched in the past few years is that rarely will the biggest teams move their stars anywhere but out of England. If a club has a top-tier player who wants to split town or needs to make the next step up, they’ll try their hardest to ship that player where they’ll never be seen again—oftentimes, to Barcelona or Real Madrid. Usually, the only time an EPL challenger will sell a key player to a competitor—like in the recent case of Kyle Walker—is when the transfer is boosted by a hefty intra-England fee inflation.
The top English clubs are loath to let a former star give a rival an advantage if they can help it. Gone are the days of Arsenal letting Manchester United have a top goalscorer like Robin van Persie, and in their place the Premier League faces both a lack of superteams and an unprecedented era of parity, at least among the top six. The biggest clubs in the league haven’t been able to compete with the best in Europe in recent times, but the intensity and the unpredictability of their battles against each other go a long way toward making the Premier League the most thrilling domestic competition in world soccer.
This recent dynamic makes the news that Chelsea have sent Nemanja Matić to Manchester United all the more surprising on its face. In selling a consistently strong player like Matić, Chelsea are aiding their former manager, José Mourinho, effectively giving him a first-class weapon with which to execute his revenge against his old team.
Matić first arrived at Chelsea in 2009 as a hot young midfield prospect, but never caught on. After a year in England and another season on loan in Holland, Chelsea sold the young Serbian international to Benfica. Matić blossomed in Portugal, which led the Blues to bring back their former prospect in 2014. Since then, he has been a key part of Chelsea’s lineup.
Matić is a textbook Mourinho player, one willing to sacrifice for the team in doing the disciplined, gritty work as a deep midfielder, freeing up the more advanced players to do their thing in attack. Coupled with Matić’s defensive commitment is his underrated passing ability. It’s the combination of his selflessness in throwing himself into a defensive role and his ever-present passing acumen that make him such a reliable player for highly structured managers like Mourinho and Antonio Conte, and it’s why he was so instrumental in both Chelsea’s 2015 and 2017 league titles.
At this point, though, Matić found himself out of Chelsea manager Antonio Conte’s plans, and the 28-year-old has come to Old Trafford to reunite with his old boss. Matić’s addition should be key for United’s season. In an ideal world he would be the starting defensive midfielder in a 4-3-3, freeing up teammates Ander Herrera and especially Paul Pogba (the latter of whom is so gifted when attacking but was somewhat limited last year when playing further back) to contribute to the attacking end of the pitch where they are so dangerous. Matić is a clear upgrade over Michael Carrick and Marouane Fellaini there, who ate up significant minutes last season as Mourinho sought to find a stable midfield setup to get the best out of his squad. And even if Matić is only a depth option for United, he adds many more of the qualities Mourinho most values in his deep midfielders than Carrick and Fellaini.
Matić will factor strongly in the Red Devils’ resurgence hopes, as well as Mourinho’s desire to reassert his dominance after an embarrassing mid-season exit at Chelsea in December 2015. Mourinho, whose radical pragmatism and ego-centric style of managing traditionally work great for a few years before his players get sick of it and turn on him, also signed Everton stud (and former Chelsea man) Romelu Lukaku this summer, and is set up well to challenge for the title right away.
Because of United and Mourinho’s aspirations to unseat Chelsea as champions, it’s a little odd to see Chelsea lending a helping hand. It’s true that they had a bit of a crowded midfield last season, with N’Golo Kanté emerging as Player of the Year and Matić and Cesc Fàbregas having to platoon the other midfield role. Chelsea have also replaced Matić with Monoco’s young Tiemoué Bakayoko, whom they clearly must see as a long-term upgrade on the 28-year-old Matić. Even though Matić has been quite good over the years, as we often see at the biggest clubs, nearly everyone is replaceable. With an all-action, terrorizing midfield duo of Kanté and Bakayoko, Chelsea should be fine without Matić.
Still, it’s hard not to see this move and wonder if Chelsea are tempting fate. This transfer calls to mind Frank Lampard’s move to Manchester City a few years ago, when the Chelsea legend scored an equalizer for City against the club he was so beloved at—a surreal, stinging moment in Chelsea’s recent history. If Matić pulls out some Wembley magic as an opponent at Stamford Bridge, it’ll be a bitter blow for Blues fans.
Then again, Chelsea did win the title that year Lampard scored against them, and they’ll be among the favorites heading into this campaign, too. Sure, Nemanja Matić might make Manchester United a better team heading into 2017-18, but maybe Chelsea just aren’t worried. If all goes according to Conte’s plan, United might finish higher than last year’s 6th, but they still won’t be better than the Blues.